Church reinforces children's notions of morality: In the wake of criticism that the Church is failing to teach children right from wrong, Jojo Moyes joined pupils at a Sunday school class

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NICHOLAS, aged eight-and-a- half, sucked his pencil and stuck another nativity sticker on his folder. 'If you do a bad thing,' he said finally, 'then you're going to be told off or put in prison'.

His neighbour, Clifford, eight, carefully inscribing the word 'advent' in his quiz sheet, added: 'If people do bad things they feel sad inside.' Because they've done wrong? 'Because their mummy might shout at them.'

Last week, the Church was criticised by David Maclean, a Home Office minister, who accused it of failing to teach children right from wrong. But Christine Brace, a Sunday school teacher at St Mary's Church in Chalk Farm, north London, said those in her 7- to 11-year-old group already had their own sense of morality.

'It probably begins a lot younger than you think. Most of these do know the difference between right and wrong as opposed to avoiding punishment. But that's always a part of it - even when they're teenagers,' she said.

In St Mary's Sunday school, notions of morality were reinforced by the teaching and acting out of Bible stories and the discussion of issues such as 'what sorts of people aren't happy at Christmas?' (Answers - 'tramps', 'prisoners of war' and 'Jewish people').

Jenny, six, came to Sunday school to learn about Jesus. What had she learnt about Jesus? 'He helps people.' Did she know the difference between right and wrong? That one, she admitted, was a bit confusing. When asked what might be a good thing to do for someone, she replied: 'If you give them a present.'

Ada, who at eight is a veteran of three years at Sunday school, said that it had taught her how to be good. 'You learn how to help other people.' Sometimes, she added, she learnt a bit of that in school too. Tunde Ekpe, Ada's mother, said more children should attend, especially as many schools no longer held assemblies or prayers. 'It sticks to them when they're young. When I went to Sunday school it was all very hellfire and brimstone. They put the fear of God in you. It played a big part in teaching me, but a lot of it is to do with the parents.'

Angela Leefe, whose four-year- old daughter attends, described criticism of the Church as a 'cop- out', but added that sometimes the religious message became a little confused. 'Last Easter, Georgia came home and told me that Jesus died because he didn't wait for the green man to come up before he crossed the road.'

(Photograph omitted)